Flint plunged his hand into the raging river filled to the brim with the melted snow that ran down from the High Mountains. It wouldn’t burst its banks today, but more rain would almost certainly push it over the edge. It had been relentless this year, even as they moved into the hotter months. He had to remain cautious.
He wandered back to his satchel and removed his gauntlets and daggers, carefully laying them on the ground. He retrieved his well-crafted fishhook and gently threaded it with a horsehair line. Upon tying it off and testing it for strength, he wound the line around a large stick to create a useable fishing pole.
He leaned the pole against a trunk and moved into the forest, searching for large fallen branches or hidden nooks within each tree. He quickly found a rotting log that had been competing for a newly created spot in the upper canopy until the wind must have ripped it from its youthful roots and sent it tumbling to the ground. He lowered his centre of gravity and placed both his hands on the log. He pushed and strained, but it refused to move. Flint scanned the forest, looking for the large brown blur that often raced around, having fun while he provided, but Volk was nowhere to be seen. He put his fingers to his mouth and whistled loudly, waiting for the rumbling of the ground as she approached. Nothing. She must’ve found a warm patch—Nice life for some.
He returned to the log, where he discovered an indent perfect for leverage. He reset himself low, this time with both hands on the dent. He stood with all his might, arms shaking, core engaged, straining, and grunting until it slowly separated from the ground. Flint heaved it to the side, revealing a world of bugs and insects that had made their home underneath and within the decaying wood. He stared at the scrambling creatures running for the safety of darkness. His eyes followed them, mesmerised as they burrowed their way into each little crack. Every point of the log was inundated with movement, countless little creatures that had chosen to make this their home, their whole world. Focus. If he waited much longer, they would all crawl away. There! Three white moth larvae lay wiggling in the dirt; their juicy bodies looked perfect for catching his dinner.
He scooped them up and returned to the bank where he peered into the water, searching for tiny bubbles of air that breached the surface. This part was a waiting game, and Flint was patient; he would allow the fish to reveal themselves. Although… it seemed the river was flowing too aggressively to be of much help today.
A movement on the opposite bank caught his eye. He snapped his head towards it and stayed perfectly still, waiting for the offender to reveal themselves. He scanned the trees for faces, the trunks for misplaced leaves, the ground for unusual patterns. This could be a long game to play. He was willing to participate. His squat position soon made his calves burn and his quads shake, yet he was determined to push through. And so, he did, for what felt like an entire section until he began to doubt the legitimacy of what he saw. Aching and eager to return some blood to his legs, he thought about giving up when finally, he spied the movement—A black woodpecker poking its head out of a small hole in the side of a tree. Flint sighed loudly and rubbed his legs back awake as he wandered up and down the bank. A waste of time. Not that he had any shortage of that. Maybe he should’ve been grateful for the distraction.
Flint returned to his fishing pole and snatched it up, still unable to track any signs of fish; he would have to settle on a segment of water that looked deeper than the rest. He skewered one of the larvae on his hook and returned the other two to a leather pouch sitting at his waist. He threw his line in the water, waited for the deer tail lure to reach its furthest point, and then threaded his makeshift pole through a nearby forked pine tree. There was no way a fish could steal his hook now. Not again. Surely not again.
He watched his line silently, allowing the hypnotic ripples in the river to create flashing patterns. He tried to invent stories like the ones Mother used to tell as she stared at the world around her, but he couldn’t help but see the water divided by a protruding branch. What else was there to see?
Hostility filled the air. Flint instinctually investigated the canopy for searching eyes but came up empty. His flesh pimpled as a stick cracking echoed louder than the fast-flowing river. He looked at his daggers lying on the ground twelve paces from where he stood. Would he make it? He had to make it. He casually scanned the forest for movement one last time before springing to his feet and racing for his daggers. There was a commotion to his right as something significant and very close pounded towards him. His heart leapt against his chest as the ground shook. Something was closing in. He lunged for his daggers and spun around to strike as a hulking body threw itself towards him and landed less than a pace away with a thud. Flint managed to halt his dagger hurtling through the air in a split beat. It was Volk staring at him with her playful eyes and tongue hanging from her mouth.
“What are you doing?” Flint barked as his hands began to tremble. Volk dropped her ears and took a pace back, scared by his tone. “Volk...” He said, his heart quickly returning to a consistent beat. He took a deep breath and allowed his body to relax. “You scared me.” He placed his daggers on the ground and took a step towards her. He reached out and pat her broad face, tickling her under the chin and wobbling her soft jowls. Her ears sprung back up, and her tongue dropped from her mouth as she nuzzled into his chest, her nose beginning to twitch as she sniffed at the pouch containing the larvae.
“They’re for fishing.” He mumbled as she nibbled on the leather. Volk turned her big pleading brown eyes towards him. She lowered her head and gently licked his left thigh, right above his wound. Flint scoffed, “Really? Go on then.” He said as he opened the pouch and allowed the two larvae to fall onto the forest floor. Volk gobbled them up with glee before taking a few paces back and lowering her head. She lightly pawed his side, opening and closing her mouth while gently moaning.
“You want to play?” Flint asked as Volk excitedly bounded on the spot. “I was about to train.” He said, half turning his body away. Volk stopped, disappointed, and Flint took his opportunity to launch himself into her. He wrapped his arms around her as she groaned but could not move her with his whole-body tackle. She lightly pawed at his chest, throwing him off balance while flaring her deadly teeth in front of his face. He clenched his jaw and pushed with all his strength, finally toppling her centre of gravity and forcing her to the ground. With absolute ease, she threw him off and stood over the top of him. The two wrestled back and forth until Volk's large paws spread across Flint’s chest and pinned him to the ground. Breathless and exhausted, he tried to lift himself, but Volk had the upper hand. He went limp and lay his head on a clump of inviting leaves, grateful for the rest as his chest heaved up and down. It wasn’t long until Volk removed her paws and lowered her head to sniff. He flung himself towards the river and out from underneath her, a classic deception that fooled her every time. He retook his feet, ignored his breathlessness, and raised his hands, preparing to pounce. Volk waggled her whole body excitedly, ready to no doubt pin him in an instant.
Without warning, her head swung around, and her ears stood tall as she stared at the opposite bank. “Giving up?” Flint asked, expecting her to return to battle at any moment. Instead, she rose onto her hind legs and surveyed the forest across the river, which she only did when searching for more information—hostility in the air. Flint turned to see what had her attention. Before he knew what was going on, he stumbled forward after a hefty shove sent him flying into the river. The icy water stole his breath as he went under. He quickly found his feet and turned to see Volk standing over him from the bank.
“Volk!” Flint gushed, splashing her playfully with the water. He grabbed either side of her scruff and leaned forward allowing the two to touch foreheads. He took a breath, sharing the air with her. Volk licked his face lovingly, then excitedly bound towards his fishing pole. The line had been taken.
Flint used the current to float downstream and grabbed onto the taught line. He was disappointed to find it leading under the large stick creating the ripples. He tried to pull the line towards him, but it was snagged and risked breaking if he didn’t manoeuvre it carefully. He swam to the branch and immersed his head underwater, peering to see if there was an easy way to dislodge the snag. Unable to find a solution, he re-emerged and grabbed onto the line, following it with his hand. It seemed to curl underneath the stick but was frantically moving from side to side, meaning the fish was still attached. He stretched as far as he could, grabbed onto the fish’s mouth and yanked it back towards him.
He held his prize aloft. A large brown trout, much to Volk’s delight. He produced a throwing knife attached to his thigh, cut from the fish’s navel to between its gills, and then returned the knife to its rightful place. He searched through its guts and found its slimy liver. He shoved it in his mouth, then, without chewing, enjoyed the feeling of it sliding down his throat with ease. The rich energy instantly flowed into his body. As he ripped out the rest of the guts for Volk, he noticed tiny orange ovals. “Lucky me!” He teased, scooping up the roe and allowing its savoury flavours to wash over his mouth. It wasn’t often he got to enjoy such luxuries. He threw the rest of the guts to Volk, then waded upriver and placed the fish by his belongings. “Not for you!” He overemphasised to Volk, waving his hands and pointing at the trout.
He turned upriver where he had noticed a soapwort bush and decided it would be best to wash. He began the lengthy process of removing his clothes. He started with his tunic, then moved on to unwinding the wraps around his feet before removing his pants. The river felt refreshing flowing about his almost naked body, his thigh wound remaining covered with the small knife attached to the bandage.
He paddled to the soapwort bush, where he grabbed a chunk of its leaves and tore them from the branch. He waded to the middle of the river and placed the plant underwater, vigorously rubbing the leaves together, creating a soapy substance. He cleaned his body, enjoying the floral smells that filled his nostrils. It had been too long since he had washed. He couldn’t imagine how pungent he had been to Volk.
As he lifted his arms and washed his hairy pits, he noticed a twig sticking awkwardly out of the ground on the opposite bank. There was something odd about the way it was sitting vertically in the surrounding natural landscape. He moved towards it, intrigued by how it could have found itself in that position. His mouth ran dry as he made his final approach. A hooved animal had stood on the twig, forcing half of it to stick straight into the air. This could be easily explained. Deer came to drink at the river all the time. It was nothing to be concerned about. Still… He felt uncomfortable. As he took his final few steps towards the bank, the picture became more apparent. This animal was bigger than a deer. Its tracks sunk much further into the bank and created a weird, skinny semi-circle he had never seen before. No. Once before. Nine winters ago.
The disturbing realisation of what it was dawned on him. He immediately turned and waded back across the river. This was no wild animal track. It was a horse’s hoof. A domesticated one. He took control of his breath, not letting it slip from his grasp. There was nothing to fear. Not yet. This person was probably long gone. One human was nothing to fear. He did not need to worry. He reached the centre of the river and stumbled on a rock that sent him tumbling into the water. He regained his footing, swept the hair from his eyes, and searched for Volk on the other side of the bank.
“Stop or die!” A female voice commanded. Flint stopped. He had nothing to fear. He had done nothing wrong. No one knew who he was. He slowly turned to inspect the girl on the bank. She stood firm with a large recurve bow cocked and pointed directly at him. She wore a red tunic that was much too big and looked like a sack, with tall, black riding boots and brown pants. She was quite petite, with a little nose and skin that was darker than his. “Hands up. I want to see them.”
Flint lifted his hands from the water and placed them on his head. So, this was the human who would be his demise. Nine winters he had evaded their clutch. Now, this cunning girl had managed to sneak up on him. Worst of all, he was naked. What a shameful way to be caught. “How did you find me?”
“Is it you following me?” She asked at the same time. “You’re not following me?” She quickly added, keeping her bow string drawn and ready to loose.
“You wouldn’t know if I were,” Flint mumbled, his unblinking eyes focused on her every move. She had thought he was following her. Not as cunning as he initially thought. Perhaps he had a chance after all.
The corner of her mouth curled upwards. “What’re you doing?”
“I mean out here, in the open forest.”
Flint stood still as he considered his possible answers to the girl’s question. Analyse. A bow ready to use, a sword at her waist. How accurate would she be? Even if she did miss the first time… He didn’t like his odds. He would need to strike as soon as she made a mistake. She had the upper hand in every way; he could not afford to let an opportunity slip. Maybe if he were to - Taking his silence as an act of defiance, the girl loosed an arrow that sailed through the gap between Flint’s head and arm. He looked from the tiny opening to the girl, impressed by her precision. If she wanted him dead, he’d be dead. He slowly took his hands off his head and returned to washing his body with the soapwort bush.
“What are you doing?” She asked, retrieving another arrow from her quiver and knocking it to her bow.
“I live here.”
“I mean right now!” She snapped.
“You just said that -”
She leaned forward and placed more tension through her bow, aiming straight for Flint’s face. “Tell me what you’re doing right now.” She demanded.
“Bathing,” Flint replied, returning the soapwort to the water and giving it a rub.
“I don’t care. Stop it, or I’ll stick you.” She said, waving her bow around.
Flint reached into the water and splashed his face. “What’re you doing here?”
“None of your business.”
“Maybe I can help you,” Flint said as he threw away the sullied soapwort bush. “You might be lost… or looking for someone. I could help.”
“Do you think we’ll become friends?” She teased, dropping her aim ever so slightly.
“I don’t have friends,” Flint replied as he dipped his hand into the water and grabbed his throwing knife. He swiftly threw it at the girl, who simultaneously realigned her bow and loosed her arrow. Flint lifted his hand and caught the arrow points from his face; at the same time, his throwing knife cut through her bowstring, rendering it useless. The girl’s mouth fell open as she looked from her broken bowstring to the arrow in Flint’s hand. He held it in front of his face and inspected its design. He turned it sidewise in his hand and ran his fingers along the length of it before snapping it in two and throwing it into the river.
“That was a good arrow!” She complained, throwing up her hands in frustration.
“You owe me a new string.” She said as she turned her hand side on and flapped her index finger and middle finger at Flint. “I don’t have a spare.”
“Then you shouldn’t have pointed that thing at me.”
Silence filled the air as they stubbornly refused to make the next move. It became a game as they held eye contact for as long as they could, determined not to allow the other to have any perceived sort of a win. Her eyes quickly flicked down to his body, then back up. Analyse. She still had her sword. He could see nothing ranged without her bow, and he doubted she could throw her sword. He felt much calmer and in control. His daggers were close enough that if she charged at him, he would reach them in time. The girl snorted a loud burst of air. “Who has the power now?” She asked as she placed her bow on her back.
“Really?” She laughed as she drew her sword, waving it around. “You think so?”
“Yes,” Flint said. “I lied. I have one friend.” He nodded towards a wet Volk who had made her way to the other side of the bank and was standing less than ten paces away.
“Fuck!” She cried, tripping over as she scrambled backwards. Flint raised his hand vertically and whistled to Volk, who stood on her hind legs and released a guttural growl.
“You own that?” She yelled in a panic, retaking her feet and placing a tree between herself and Volk.
“No,” Flint replied irritably. “Volk is my equal.” He said as he lowered his hand and returned Volk to all fours.
The girl’s eyes darted from Flint to Volk, who had now taken a seat on the ground and was chewing on the grass surrounding her. The girl stepped out from behind her tree and sheathed her sword, raising her arms in the air.
“Sorry to have scared you.” She half smiled. “I was wondering if there was a town close by. I’m trying to go south.” She said as she squatted by the bank. She raised her head expectantly, waiting for a reply that never came. She continued, “I got lost a day ago. I’m scared of the forest. Beasts are lurking everywhere. I’m looking for the Capital, Esimüla, my mother is waiting for me. Can you help?” She sniffled as she wiped her nose.
“You were trying to kill me.”
“I was scared. I thought someone was following me. I can’t defend myself very well if someone wanted to… If they...” She gave another loud sniff and pointed east. “I need to go south. Actually, southwest. I think.”
Flint looked at the clueless girl pointing in the wrong direction. He wanted nothing to do with her. “Well…” Flint sighed. Give her what she wants, and then she’ll leave. “Look to the sun.” He said, searching the sky. He pointed to the rays penetrating the canopy and explained, “It’s not perfect, but the sun sets around the west. If you can find where it’s travelling in the sky, you can -”
The girl used Flint’s lapse in concentration to dive into the river, swimming powerfully towards the other bank. Flint cursed himself for falling for her tricks and hurriedly waded back to his things. The race was on. Flint was losing.
He made it to the bank and launched himself out of the water. Lunging for his dagger, he gripped the handle as a cold blade rested against his throat.
“Uh. Give it to me.” Yanik said, pushing the dagger hard against the Wildman’s neck. She could tell it was beautifully crafted with a perfect weighting and a charcoal blade that had ruby veins as she’d never seen. It must’ve been worth a sack of gold. The Wildman skilfully flipped his dagger around and handed it to her hilt first. It was the same. Two of the most beautifully crafted weapons she’d ever seen. Two sacks of gold. The Wildman’s face twisted with pain as she placed the dagger in her sheath. Not that it was any of her concern. If he could afford these, he could afford more.
She stepped back to distance them and took him in for the first time. He was naked. His long brown hair was poorly tied into a ponytail with a band of frayed rope; it tumbled past his shoulders and sprayed out in every direction. He had a mismanaged beard with hairs that varied in length, blue-grey eyes that were both calming yet full of rage, and a mouth drawn so tight with a jaw so clenched it seemed as though the only explanation was constant constipation. It was clear he had not enjoyed the delightful foods of the cities in his life, his slim, muscular body weathered the harsh conditions of the forest. Yanik scowled at the bandage wound tightly around his thigh. “Hardly seems fair when you’re injured.” She said, pulling a fake sad face.
“I’m not injured.” He grunted, that jaw of his clenched so tight his mouth barely moved.
“Of course not! You just thought it would be fun to strap your leg.” Yanik said, shaking her head at the Wildman in front of her. “Food?” She asked. He stayed defiantly still as he stared across the water, his fists clenching and his toes curling as rage oozed from his every pore. She needed not to let her guard down or underestimate him again. She had to show him who was in charge. She violently pushed him against the closest pine and held the blade so close to his throat that a drop of blood dribbled down his neck. “I asked if you had food!”
“Fish.” He replied, pointing to a large trout on the bank. If he was afraid, he wasn’t showing it. His eyes flicked behind her before meeting hers again. “I have lots of food at camp.” He continued. “Good food. Nice food. Food that… will… be good.” He stammered, unable to find any more words. His eyes flicked behind her again.
Yanik rotated around his body to see that fucking bear of his less than five paces away. It was deathly quiet in its movements. Almost snuck up on her for a second time. She placed the dagger back to the Wildman’s throat and wrapped her arm around his bare chest. “Make it go away!” She growled in his ears, pulling him closer.
His body went rigid, and his breathing became laboured. His muscles began to tense and release as the dagger pressed against his heaving throat. “What’re you doing,” Yanik yelled in his ear, holding the knife strong but worried about the blood that had started flowing from his neck. The Wildman closed his eyes and took a breath, holding still. He took another deep breath before raising his hand and gesturing to the bear.
“Tell him to go away.” Yanik urged, slowly moving the two of them backwards.
“She won’t leave me.”
Yanik slightly relaxed the dagger on his throat as she shuffled the two away from the bear. She stumbled on a stick fashioned into a fishing pole, creating momentary separation as her body weight drew her to the ground. Despite having his chance, the Wildman stood strong, allowing Yanik to use him to regain her balance. She removed the dagger from his throat. “Over there. Against the tree.” Yanik ordered. “Don’t move.”
Yanik stepped back from the Wildman and whistled loudly after checking that the bear was far enough away. There was a moment of silence before Redg’s hooves could be heard thundering over the sound of the river. Without missing a stride, he swam across and emerged next to her in a matter of beats. His beautiful brown coat shimmered with water as he stood majestically beside her. She produced her last handful of berries and pat him on the snout.
“No, what?” Yanik said as she placed her foot in the stirrup and launched herself onto Redg’s back.
“Yes, horse,” Yanik said as she loomed over the Wildman. “Get your things. Take me to food. If you try to run, or your bear comes too close…” Yanik drew her sword. “I will kill you.”
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